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Timothy’s Quest (Dirigo, 1922)

timothys-quest-screenshot-1Timothy’s Quest (Dirigo, 1922)
Directed by Sidney Olcott
Starring Joseph Depew and Helen Roland

10 year old Timothy (Joseph Depew) and his 4 year old sister Gay (Helen Roland) are orphans. They’re fundamentally good kids, but the slum they live in is in a rough and violent part of the city (Boston? New York? It doesn’t really matter — it’s the city). Their only ray of hope comes from Miss Dora, the “Angel of the Alley” (Gladys Leslie). She’s a social worker or something of that nature. Timothy’s entire world is confined to this slum and he knows nothing else. Dora suggests he make a “picture prayer”, which she describes as thinking about a wish long enough that the wish comes true. I think Oprah called it “The Secret”. Anyway, Timothy’s picture prayer is of a white house in the country where there lives a kindly lady who wants to adopt them.

The occasional money the kids received from some anonymous source has dried up and the two drunks who keep them have decided to give Gay to the Ladies’ Relief Home and send Timothy to the state orphanage. With no desire to be split up, Timothy, Gay, and their dog (Rags) slip away under cover of darkness and hop a north-bound freight train — trusting in the picture prayer to see them through.

timothys-quest-screenshot-2The morning finds them overlooking a small cluster of houses built around a church nestled in the rolling hills of rural Maine. They continue on foot until they reach the envisioned house, although its owner is rather older than Timothy imagined, and of the several appellations that might be given her, “kindly” isn’t one of them. Avilda Cummins (Marie Day) dislikes the children from the start and wouldn’t have suffered them to stay a moment were it not for Samantha’s (Margaret Seddon) intervention. Samantha at some point in the distant past might have been termed a maid, but now “companion” is more fitting.

And so Timothy and Gay tentatively remain at White Farm. Everyone is enamored by them — everyone but Vilda. The boy reminds her “of something in the past”, she says, and she “can’t stand to have [him] about”. To cut to the chase, Timothy and Gay were her sister’s children. She had gotten “in trouble” and was run out of town. And Vilda is angry: angry at her sister Martha, angry at the “good orthodox Christians” who turned their backs when Martha needed them most, and angry at herself for not supporting her.

timothys-quest-screenshot-3Vilda at last relents and adopts Timothy and Gay, and in doing so, comes to terms with the past.

I’m from Maine. I know I’ve mentioned that on my book blog, but I don’t think it’s ever come up on this one. There are several films set in Maine, some pretty well known, but rarely were they actually filmed here. Way Down East (1920) didn’t get any nearer than Connecticut. At least that’s New England — Shadows (1922) was shot entirely in California. Timothy’s Quest (1922), the only production ever released by Dirigo Films, aside from being set in Maine was filmed here too. It was shot in and around Hollis, which is in the southern part of the state, not terribly far from Portland. It’s doubly interesting since most Maine films (silent and sound) focus on the coastal fishing and shipping centers rather than inland farming communities like Hollis. In fact, I can’t actually think of another example beyond Timothy’s Quest. I have to say, more than anything else, that’s what attracted me to the film when I saw it on Amazon. Maine is old and slow to change — for much of the state, 1922 is recent enough to be yesterday — and I hoped to see something familiar. I was not disappointed. The first view of town Timothy catches is, for the world, what I see going up route 4 on my way home. There’s nothing fake about the Maine of this film — it all rings perfectly true.

timothys-quest-screenshot-4Aside from my delight at the setting, it’s all around a good film. There’s hardly a weak performance — Depew and Day turn in particularly strong work. You might notice that Vivia Ogden reprises her role from Way Down East as the town gossip. It’s a fun callback, and the character suits her well. If I had any complaints, it’s that the story may be stretched a little thin at seven reels. It wouldn’t lose anything were it tightened up a bit, notably in the back half.

I watched the recent Flicker Alley BD-R, which looks great aside from the mistimed tinting (the color changes consistently about half a second before the scene changes) and the tints maybe being a bit too strong. Although I rather think I have a 16mm print in my collection. If I do, I’ve never examined it and I’m not sure if it’s complete. If I remember after writing this, I must check.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Flicker Alley

Edit: Hey, I remembered, and hey, I do. In need of a thorough cleaning, but otherwise in good shape.timothys-quest-print

Noir-de-Fumée, Détective Amateur (?, 1931)

Lampblack screenshotNoir-de-Fumée, Détective Amateur (?, 1931)
Directed by ?
Starring ?

To address the question marks, rather than posting in my standard form, I’ve decided to first take you on a little journey:

I mentioned before that I’m in the process of moving and I don’t have most of the film collection at hand. However, quite accidentally one title was left out and it’s been sitting on my make-shift desk for the last three months. It’s on four 60-foot bobbins of 9.5mm film. The title given on the bobbins is Noir-de-Fumée, détective amateur. It appears in the 1931 Pathé-Baby catalogue, item #3032.

But Baby releases were almost always re-titled, so what is this film really? Sometimes the catalogue listing will be of help: it might give the name of the star, or of the director, or rarely it will even reveal the original title. No such luck with Noir-de-Fumée, but there are a few clues. It’s in the children’s film section and is listed as a comedy. Also, it names one of the characters “Dollie”.

My first thought, based solely on this information, was that it’s a Baby Marie Osborne film. Pathé always called Osborne’s characters Dolly or Dollie, regardless of what the characters’ names were originally. The three screenshots are too small to tell who the actors might be, but one of them includes a black boy and that bears out the Osborne theory — Ernest Morrison frequently featured in her films. Trouble is, the description given didn’t match any of the Osborne films I was aware of, and after a quick scan of contemporary release notices and reviews available at lantern.mediahist.org for all of Osborne’s small oeuvre, none of them at all looked like contenders.

So, even if Osborne is out, maybe Morrison is still in. Pathé’s character naming might be an attempt to tie one of Morrison’s later works into his earlier output with Osborne. A Sunshine Sammy film, maybe? I know of them, but I’ve never seen one and I’m not familiar with their plots. Just glancing through a title list, it could be Rich Man, Poor Man (1922) or The Sleuth (1922). Those sound like appropriate titles for a film matching Pathé’s description.

I was leaning towards the Sunshine Sammy idea rather than what Morrison is most remembered for — Our Gang — simply because Noir-de-Fumée doesn’t fit at all with the sort of titles Pathé usually gave Our Gang films. Had it mentioned Négritina or Enfants, then yes, surely Our Gang, but it didn’t.

Noir-de-Fumee listingYou might be asking why am I making this so difficult for myself — why don’t I just look up the item number in the Pathéscope catalogue at pathefilm.uk? That would list the original title along with Pathé’s. That works for earlier films, back when French Pathé-Baby releases and English Pathéscope releases were both printed at the same factory and shared the same item numbers, but not for films of this vintage. Further, Pathéscope mirrored most of Pathé-Baby’s output, but not all of it, and I could find nothing resembling an English version of this title.

Well, that’s as far as I could get without biting the bullet and actually watching the film. Not that I didn’t care to see it, mind, but it was the difficulty of accomplishing this that I was avoiding. As for projecting it, I had my Gem with me, but that’s only for 9.5mm on reels — Noir-de-Fumée, as I said, is in bobbins and my Babies are boxed up. That left transferring it to video. It’s true that the components of my film scanner are here, but setting it up on the two banquet tables squeezed into this small apartment bedroom that I’m calling an office would be a challenge.

I avoided that challenge, as I said, for three months before curiosity won out over laziness. After transferring it, I saw at once that the male lead of the film was indeed Ernest Morrison. He plays Noir-de-Fumée (let’s call him Lampblack instead). The female lead character was called Boby (Bobbie). The Dollie (Dolly) that featured so heavily in the description doesn’t actually feature that heavily in the film. She’s kidnapped almost at once, and after that, she’s just a MacGuffin for Lampblack and Bobbie to rescue. (That’s an anachronism by the way — MacGuffin, I mean. The term more commonly in use in the silent era was weenie.) Dolly certainly isn’t Marie Osborne. Bobbie might have been — kids so young that they’re still chubby with baby fat are hard to tell apart — but I was reasonably sure Bobbie was played by Mary Kornman. That’s two Little Rascals (three actually, but I didn’t right away recognize Dolly as Peggy Cartwright). The Sunshine Sammy theory is looking shaky. The kidnappers are indistinct. A couple of them are in Snub Pollard getups but neither really looked like him otherwise. Paul Parrott was not to be seen, but there is a mule who I bet is named Dinah. The theory falls flat on its face.

Okay, so it’s an Our Gang film. Which one? Not so hard to find: “our gang” + “kidnap” = Young Sherlocks (1922), directed by Robert F. McGowan and Tom McNamara. Young Sherlocks was a very early entry to the Our Gang canon. Indeed, it was one of the first filmed. It was a two-reeler and Noir-de-Fumée is the equivalent of one reel, but the latter doesn’t seem to be severely edited because it’s actually just excerpting the imaginary sequence from Young Sherlocks with only minor edits and presenting it as a stand-alone film. That also explains the absence of the rest of the gang and probably why Pathé downplayed the connection to the series. It wasn’t released by Pathéscope because, in a way, it already had been. Pathéscope turned Young Sherlocks into three separate, much shorter films — Kidnapped, Comrades of the Crimson Clan, and Fun in Freetown — rather than release it in a single, longer form.

Maybe that was more than a “little” journey, but at any rate, we’ve arrived at our destination, so now let me talk about the film:

Lampblack screenshotDolly (Peggy Cartwright) is playing on the front lawn with her pony, Spinach, and an unnamed dog. A gang of bandits (Ed Brandenburg, Dick Gilbert, William Gillespie, Wallace Howe, and Mark Jones) appear and kidnap her, expecting to get $100,000 ransom from her rich papa (Charley Young). Across the street, Lampblack (Ernest Morrison) and his little friend Bobbie (Mary Kornman) witness the abduction and decide to intervene.

Lampblack and Bobbie follow the getaway car on their mule, Seventy-Five (Dinah). Spinach, who we’re told is a great friend of Dolly, follows as well, independent of the others, and catches up with the bandits first. They send him back with a note to Papa telling him where to bring the money. I imagine this took several takes and I also imagine why, given how cautiously the bandit gives the pony the note and how careful he is not to get his fingers anywhere near his mouth. Papa and Mama (Dot Farley) get the message and speed away in their car, stopping at the bank to withdraw a $100,000, which they seem to consider mere pocket change.

Meanwhile, Lampblack and Bobbie approach the hideout, but suddenly two bandits emerge and now they have to hide themselves. Bobbie squeezes down the barrel of a cannon (the bandits are prepared, we’re told) and Lampblack hides in a stack of cannon balls, his head sticking out the top but perfectly invisible (because he’s black and so are the cannon balls, you see). The bandits have come outside to smoke (polite of them). One tosses his still-lit match inside the cannon, where it lands square on the seat of Bobbie’s pants. As soon as they go back inside, she shimmies out and runs pell-mell across the countryside.

Lampblack sees Dolly tied to a tree, lackadaisically guarded by a bandit who seems to be more interested in the handsome man he sees gazing back at him in his looking glass. Lampblack picks up a shotgun and fires at the bandit, attracting the attention of the others. The kickback launches him into the air, landing on and knocking down one of the other bandits. He shoots again and likewise catapults himself into another.

Bobbie runs to a gas station and sits in a bucket of water. Papa and Mama are there refueling. Dripping wet, she walks over and lets them know where Dolly is being held. They pick her up into the car and speed off without even paying for their gas.

Back at the hideout, the bandits have got the upper hand on Lampblack. He’s backed up against a telegraph pole and they’re throwing swords at him. Every one narrowly misses Lampblack and strikes the pole, eventually causing it to snap in half and come tumbling down on them. Seventy-Five appears to lend assistance, kicking cannon balls at the bandits (he has remarkable aim, you know).

The day is won and Lampblack unties Dolly. Just then, Papa, Mama, and Bobbie pull up. Papa, so pleased with the kids’ efforts, gives them the $100,000, and golly gee, what candy we could buy wit’ all dis dough.

Young Sherlocks lobby cardI’m not big on child comedies, mostly because they star child actors. Mary Kornman doesn’t do much besides stand around and squint. Peggy Cartwright, as I said, is hardly in the film. In the few scenes where she’s not tied up, she does moderately well exhibiting the correct emotion, but her timing is atrocious. I will say, however, that Ernest Morrison is a natural. He acts believably as the kid who starts out on an adventure half-playing pretend and then finds himself in over his head when it gets real (it’s a slapstick comedy, yes, but he does manage to mix in some pathos — he’s the only one who does, in fact, including the adult actors).

My rating: Without Morrison, I would say dislike, but he elevates it to a solid meh.


Available from Harpodeon

The Sawmill (Vitagraph, 1922)

The Sawmill adThe Sawmill (Vitagraph, 1922)
Directed by Larry Semon and Norman Taurog
Starring Larry Semon

I certainly wouldn’t describe Larry Semon as one of my favorite comedians, but all the same, The Sawmill (1922) isn’t a half bad short slapstick comedy.

The setting is a forest and sawmill in the Pacific Northwest. The characters are the owner (Frank Alexander) and his daughter (Ann Hastings), the boss (Al Thompson) and his daughter (Kathleen O’Connor), the foreman (Oliver Hardy), and the “dumbbell” (Larry Semon). There’s very little plot, but the film can be roughly divided into four segments:

  1. The owner arrives at the mill and the foreman starts pressing his men to work harder to impress him. The foreman is sweet on the boss’s daughter, but she’s rather taken by Larry. This does not put the two men on good terms. Commence the first chase sequence, the foreman going after Larry.
  2. Larry, fed up with nearly being killed several times over, launches a counterattack on the foreman’s gang. Commence the second chase sequence, Larry after the foreman’s henchman. The owner becomes collateral damage, being soaked at various times in sawdust, soup, and paint.
  3. The owner blames the foreman for losing control of the mill, and consequently, fires him. The boss’s daughter has disappeared from the picture at this point, so Larry’s attentions have been redirected to the owner’s daughter. The owner does not care for these developments. Commence the third chase, the owner after Larry.
  4. The foreman returns with a gang of disgruntled employees. They take the owner hostage. Larry and the owner’s daughter escape. Commence the fourth chase, the foreman’s gang after Larry.

Semon films were never much for characterization and The Sawmill is not an exception. “The boss”, “the owner”, and “the foreman” are only distinguished by the title cards that introduce them, and as for Semon’s character, he doesn’t have one. Really, there’s not anything to even suggest that he works at the sawmill. He just plays a clown, pure and simple.

When sitting down to a Semon film, you can be pretty certain of what you’re going to see. The Sawmill covers all the familiar ground: tumbling, forward rolls, swinging from ropes, jumping off towers, and paint dumped on heads. It notably lacks any racial humor (there is a bit of yellowface, but the character is never involved in any of the gags).

Semon was big in the early days, but quickly vanished as the market for shorts dried up. He never made a successful transition to feature-length films. His features are mostly just shorts padded out with two or three unnecessary reels – although The Perfect Clown (1925) isn’t too bad, I don’t think. Most, including myself, would say his peak was the “The [Blank]” series – The Show, The Bakery, The Sawmill, etc. – made in the first couple years of the 1920s at Vitagraph. His earlier films from the late 1910s, the “[Blanks] and [Blanks]” series” – Dunces and Dangers, Frauds and Frenzies, Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies, etc. – are considerably rougher and even less plot driven.

The Sawmill is notable for being the most expensive two-reel silent comedy ever produced. The scene where the owner’s house explodes and Larry is catapulted into the sky inside a safe, only to land several miles away without a scratch on him, is remarkably similar to the much maligned refrigerator scene in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008). Remarkably similar.

I hadn’t seen The Sawmill in two or three years and I found that it was better than I remembered it being. This time, what I was watching was a video assembled from three prints, one an original Kodascope in very nice condition, and it’s around three-four minutes longer than any other version of the film I’ve seen. Maybe the additional footage is an improvement, or maybe it’s the more detailed and less tightly cropped picture. In any case…

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Tess of the Storm Country (1914, 1922)

Tess of the Storm Country posterTess of the Storm Country (Famous Players, 1914)
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Starring Mary Pickford

…and…

Tess of the Storm Country (United Artists, 1922)
Directed by John S. Robertson
Starring Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford said that her character in Tess of the Storm Country was her favorite out of all the characters she portrayed. It must have been, since she did it twice: once in 1914, and again, reprising the role for the 1922 remake.

Both adaptations take varying liberties with the source material, so I’ll first give a brief summary of the book and then mention the plot difference in the movies:

In Ithaca, New York, on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake, sits the stately country home of Elias Graves (1914: William Walters / 1922: David Torrence), the minister of the largest church in the city. His daughter Teola (Olive Golden / Gloria Hope) lives with him, his son Frederick (Harold Lockwood / Lloyd Hughes) is away at Cornell University. The view over the water is blighted by a crude village of desperately poor fishermen squatting on the bank of the lake. Graves owns the land and wants nothing more than to tear down every last shanty, but squatter’s law prevents him from evicting the fishermen. Among the squatters are Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) and her father Orn (David Hartford / Forrest Robinson), Ezra Longman (Eugene Walter / Danny Hoy), and Ben Letts (Richard Garrick / Jean Hersholt). Ben was once the boyfriend of Ezra’s sister Myra, but more or less abandoned her when she became pregnant.

Graves uses his influence to enact a ban on net fishing in the lake – hoping to starve out the squatters. Forced into poaching to survive, the men wait until nightfall to haul in their nets. The game warden anticipated this, however, and sweeps in to confiscate the catch. Ben takes Orn’s rifle and shoots the warden dead. Orn hears the shot and discovers the body. He’s examining it when the police arrive. Orn is arrested for the murder of the game warden.

Meanwhile, Frederick is home for vacation. He meets and falls in love with Tess, although the animosity between his father and the squatters limits their interaction. With him is his friend Dan Jordan (Jack Henry / Robert Russell), who has a fling with Fred’s sister Teola. He had hinted at marriage without any immediate plans before, but toward the end of winter break, Teola presses him to set a date as quickly as possible. Dan, oblivious that Teola might be pregnant, brushes her off with the same vague promise.

An accident occurs at the university and Dan is killed. Teola, realizing now that she has no hope of saving her honor, goes to the cliffs with suicidal intent. She’s found by Tess, who talks her out of it and takes her back to the Skinner shack. Teola gives birth to a premature baby boy, who Tess promises to take care of, not expecting him to live long. Some days later, Teola is with Tess and the baby when Fred comes for an unexpected visit. He intends on asking Tess to marry him, but assumes the worst when he discovers her with a baby. Tess looks to Teola, hoping she’ll confess, but Teola remains silent. Tess keeps her secret, but not without anger.

Orn Skinner is found guilty and sentenced to death. There’s a moving scene in the courthouse, where Tess appeals to the audience and very nearly walks out with her father as they sit in stunned silence, but the Minister breaks the spell and demands he be returned to his cell to await execution.

The Minister had been away for several weeks, during which time Teola supplied Tess with food for the baby, but on his return, the baby is left with what scant supplies are available in the village. His health rapidly declines, and when it becomes obvious to Tess that death will occur in a matter of hours, she takes the baby to the Minister’s church to have him baptized.

The Minister categorically refuses to baptize the dying baby, believing him not only to be a bastard, but worse, a squatter bastard. Tess goes to the font and, to the best of her ability, baptizes the baby herself. Teola, unable to keep silent, rushes forward and claims the now dead baby as her own.

Fred begs for Tess’s forgiveness and renews his offer of marriage. Ezra confesses to Orn’s lawyer that he was there when the shooting occurred and witnessed Ben pull the trigger. A retrial is held and Orn is acquitted. The Minister, humbled by what he’s done, deeds the lakefront to the squatter village.

Tess of the Storm Country slideI’ve left out some subplots, but that’s the main story. Neither film adaptation was so bold as to make the villain a minister. In the 1914 version, Graves is at least a deacon of the church. In the 1922 version, he’s just a member of the congregation. The change undercuts the depth of his villainy – not only wanting his own grandson dead, but personally damning him to Hell. Dan is also whitewashed in the ’22 version. In it, he wants to marry Teola, but her father won’t allow it. He becomes Graves’s accomplice, hoping to win his favor. That change works, I think – it adds depth to the character and it turns him into an excellent foil for Fred, who always opposed his father’s treatment of the squatters. It does lose the parallel between Dan and Ben, but then neither film spends as much time establishing Ben as does the book, so the parallel would be lost anyway.

Apart from changing the minister into a deacon, the 1914 version omits very little of the book – the Bill Hopkins subplot, what happens to Ben after the confession… really, that’s about it. To squeeze all that material into five reels is quite a feat. Some scenes move along so fast you hardly see them. With its breakneck speed, the film sometimes neglects to introduce characters when it should. We see Teola and the setup for her arc long before we know who she is or what her name might be. Ezra, who appears early and frequently in the film and is central to the resolution of the main plot, is never actually identified until the very end.

Tess of the Storm Country (1914) was one of the last films directed by Edwin S. Porter, the pioneering filmmaker most known for his landmark Edison works Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). Like so many other pioneers, Porter didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the rapid advances in cinematography in the decades that followed. Other than its length, if you told me Tess of the Storm Country had actually been filmed in 1904, I’d have no reason to disbelieve you. With hardly any exception, all the scenes are shot in a very flat, staid tableau style. It does work – the narrative never becomes incomprehensible – but it’s insanely antiquated for 1914.

The 1922 remake begins with a forward stating its reason for existence. It acknowledges the 1914 version and explains that this “re-creation” was made “under the improved conditions of modern photoplay production”. The conditions certainly are improved. Compositionally speaking alone, there’s artistry in every shot. The pacing issues of the original are all more than corrected, and the pared-down story would surely be much easier to follow for someone unfamiliar with the source. That said, completely removing Graves’s position in the church – while likely a necessity to be passed by the National Board of Review, to say nothing of the church-dominated New York censorship board – destroys what should be the emotional finale. That is the one area in which I think the 1914 version is unequivocally superior.

I’d recommend both, but see the ’22 version first.

My rating: I like them.


1922 version available from Image Entertainment

Sherlock Holmes (Goldwyn, 1922)

Sherlock Holmes PosterSherlock Holmes (Goldwyn, 1922)
Directed by Albert Parker
Starring John Barrymore

Crown Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny) desperately needs to recover some letters between himself and the former lover he jilted for the throne before they can be used to blackmail him. Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore) takes the case when some preliminary investigation suggests his old nemesis Professor Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is also after them.

If there’s one thing Sherlock Holmes is known for, it’s for using his power of deduction to solve otherwise unsolvable mysteries. Oddly, outside of one entirely inconsequential scene where Holmes deduces that Dr. Watson (Roland Young) moved his dressing table to the other side of his bedroom, there is no deduction in this film. For that matter, there’s not really a mystery to be solved, either. It’s all very straight-forward, very obvious, and without the slightest hint of suspense.

Barrymore looks the part of Holmes, I’ll give him that, and after having seen his performance in Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917), I’m sure he could act it as well, but this film simply gives him nothing to work with. The story is an adaptation of a popular stage play by William Gillette. I’ve never seen the play – I’m curious to know if its characters are as lifeless and bland as the ones here.

The languid pace, abundance of intertitles, and frankly boring scenario make Sherlock Holmes (1922) a chore to watch. There’s not even the saving grace of good cinematography – large parts of the movie are too dark to even make out.

For many years, Sherlock Holmes was presumed lost, but in the mid 1970s, a cache of jumbled workprints and unedited negatives were found that, if re-assembled, would represent most of the picture. Its director, Albert Parker, was thankfully still alive and helped to edit the raw footage and put the film back together as close to how he remembered it went as possible. It’s certainly a good thing to add one more silent to the survivors list, but I can’t help thinking what a shame it is that it isn’t a better one.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Kino